Two Final Wellcome Book Prize Longlist Reviews: Krasnostein & Moshfegh

I’ve now read eight of the 12 titles longlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2019 and skimmed another two, leaving just two unexplored.

My latest two reads are books that I hugely enjoyed yet would be surprised to see make the shortlist (both ):

 

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein (2017)

I guarantee you’ve never read a biography quite like this one. For one thing, its subject is still alive and has never been much of a public figure, at least not outside Victoria, Australia. For another, your average biography is robustly supported by archival evidence; to the contrary, this is a largely oral history conveyed by an unreliable narrator. And lastly, whether a biography is critical or adulatory overall, the author usually at least feigns objectivity. Sarah Krasnostein doesn’t bother with that. Sandra Pankhurst’s life is an incredible blend of ordinary and bizarre circumstances and experiences, and it’s clear Krasnostein is smitten with her. “I fall in love … anew each time I listen to her speak,” she gushes towards the book’s end. At first I was irked by all the fawning adjectives she uses for Sandra, but eventually I stopped noticing them and allowed myself to sink into this astonishing story.

Sandra was born male and adopted by a couple whose child had died. When they later conceived again, they basically disowned ‘Peter’, moving him to an outdoor shed and making him scrounge for food. His adoptive father was an abusive alcoholic and kicked him out permanently when he was 17. Peter married ‘Linda’ at age 19 and they had two sons in quick succession, but he was already going to gay bars and wearing makeup; when he heard about the possibility of a sex change, he started taking hormones right away. Even before surgery completed the gender reassignment, Sandra got involved in sex work, and was a prostitute for years until a brutal rape at the Dream Palace brothel drove her to seek other employment. Cleaning and funeral home jobs nicely predicted the specialty business she would start after the hardware store she ran with her late husband George went under: trauma cleaning.

Krasnostein parcels this chronology into tantalizing pieces, interspersed with chapters in which she accompanies Sandra and her team on assignments. They fumigate and clean up bodily fluids after suicides and overdoses, but also deal with clients who have lost control of their possessions – and, to some extent, their lives. They’re hoarders, cancer patients and ex-convicts; their homes are overtaken by stuff and often saturated with mold or feces. Sandra sympathizes with the mental health struggles that lead people into such extreme situations. Her line of work takes “Great compassion, great dignity and a good sense of humour,” she tells Krasnostein; even better if you can “not … take the smell in, ’cause they stink.”

The author does a nice job of staying out of the narrative: though she’s an observer and questioner, there’s only the occasional paragraph in which she mentions her own life. Her mother left when she was young, which helps to explain why she is so compassionate towards the addicts and hoarders she meets with Sandra. Some of the loveliest passages have her pondering how things got so bad for these people and affirming that their lives still have value. As for Sandra herself – now in her sixties and increasingly ill with lung disease and cirrhosis – Krasnostein believes she’s never been unconditionally loved and so has never formed true human connections.

This book does many different things in its 250 pages. It’s part journalistic exposé and part “love letter”; it’s part true crime and part ordinary life story. It considers gender, mental health, addiction, trauma and death. It’s also simply a terrific read that should draw in lots of people who wouldn’t normally pick up nonfiction. I don’t expect it to advance to the shortlist, but if it does I’ll be not-so-secretly delighted.


A favorite passage:

Sometimes, listening to Sandra try to remember the events of her life is like watching someone reel in rubbish on a fishing line: a weird mix of surprise, perplexity and unexpected recognition. No matter how many times we go over the first three decades of her life, the timeline of places and dates is never clear. Many of her memories have a quality beyond being merely faded; they are so rusted that they have crumbled back into the soil of her origins. Others have been fossilised, frozen in time, and don’t have a personal pull until they defrost slightly in the sunlit air between us as we speak. And when that happens there is a tremor in her voice as she integrates them back into herself, not seamlessly but fully.

See also:

Annabel’s review

Laura’s review

 

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)

If you’ve read her Booker-shortlisted debut, Eileen, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that Moshfegh has written another love-it-or-hate-it book with a narrator whose odd behavior is hard to stomach. This worked better for me than Eileen, I think because I approached it as a deadpan black comedy in the same vein as Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. Its inclusion on the Wellcome longlist is somewhat tenuous: in 2000 the unnamed narrator, in her mid-twenties, gets a negligent psychiatrist to prescribe her drugs for insomnia and depression and stockpiles them so she can take pill cocktails to knock herself out for days at a time. In a sense this is a way of extending the numbness that started with her parents’ deaths – her father from cancer and her mother by suicide. But there’s also a more fantastical scheme in her mind: “when I’d slept enough, I’d be okay, I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person.”

Ever since she was let go from her job at a gallery that showcases ridiculous modern art, the only people in this character’s life are an on-again, off-again boyfriend, Trevor, and her best (only) friend from college, longsuffering Reva, who keeps checking up on her in her New York City apartment even though she consistently treats Reva with indifference or disdain. Soon her life is a bleary cycle of sleepwalking and sleep-shopping, interspersed with brief periods of wakefulness, during which she watches a nostalgia-inducing stream of late-1990s movies on video (the kind of stuff I watched at sleepovers with my best friend during high school) – she has a weird obsession with Whoopi Goldberg.

It’s a wonder the plot doesn’t become more repetitive. I like reading about routines, so I was fascinated to see how the narrator methodically takes her project to extremes. Amazingly, towards the middle of the novel she gets herself from a blackout situation to Reva’s mother’s funeral – about the only time we see somewhere that isn’t her apartment, the corner shop, the pharmacy or Dr. Tuttle’s office – and this interlude is just enough to break things up. There are lots of outrageous lines and preposterous decisions that made me laugh. Consumerism and self-medication to deaden painful emotions are the targets of this biting satire. As 9/11 approaches, you wonder what it will take to wake this character up to her life. I’ve often wished I could hibernate through British winters, but I wouldn’t do what Moshfegh’s antiheroine does. Call this a timely cautionary tale about privilege and disengagement.


Favorite lines:

“Initially, I just wanted some downers to drown out my thoughts and judgments, since the constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything. I thought life would be more tolerable if my brain were slower to condemn the world around me.”

“Oh, sleep, nothing else could ever bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking consciousness.”

Reva: “you’re not changing anything in your sleep. You’re just avoiding your problems. … Your problem is that you’re passive. You wait around for things to change, and they never will. That must be a painful way to live. Very disempowering.”

See also:

Clare’s review

 

And one more that I got out from the library and skimmed:

Murmur by Will Eaves (2018)

The subject is Alec Pryor, or “the scientist.” It’s clear that he is a stand-in for Alan Turing, quotes from whom appear as epigraphs at the head of most chapters. Turing was arrested for homosexuality and subjected to chemical castration. I happily read the first-person “Part One: Journal,” which was originally a stand-alone story (shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2017), but “Part Two: Letters and Dreams” was a lot harder to get into, so I ended up just giving the rest of the book a quick skim. If this is shortlisted, I promise to return to it and give it fair consideration.

 

See also:

Annabel’s review

 

We will announce our shadow panel shortlist on Friday. Follow along here and on Halfman, Halfbook, Annabookbel, A Little Blog of Books, and Dr. Laura Tisdall for reviews, predictions and reactions.

28 thoughts on “Two Final Wellcome Book Prize Longlist Reviews: Krasnostein & Moshfegh

    1. The descriptions of some of the properties they clean are pretty horrific. It’s amazing how people get used to living in filth. And the account of Sandra’s rape is rough as well. So I can’t blame you for steering clear!

      I think we’re almost there with our preferred shortlist. Just hashing it out over one or two titles.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’d really like to read Murmur. My Year of Rest and Relaxation has just enraged me too much from its plot summary (we’d ALL like to sleep through some parts of our life, but most of us have to earn a wage), so I’ve been actively avoiding it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The narrator is (vaguely) aware of her privilege: she has this NYC apartment thanks to the inheritance from her parents, and she can afford to be profligate with her money. So, yes, her experiment is predicated on having no financial or time pressures. And we get some glimpses of how ‘normal’ people live through her interactions with Reva. I can’t remember, did you read The Idiot for the Women’s Prize the other year? The tone is very similar, so if you got on with that you should be okay with the Moshfegh.

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      1. I didn’t read The Idiot, in the end (though not out of refusal, it was just hard to get hold of a copy). I’m ok with the notion that My Year… just isn’t for me, though.

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  2. Trauma Cleaner was in my top books two years ago (it was published in Australia long before overseas) – I think it’s a remarkable book and has only gone up in my esteem since hearing Krasnostein talk about trauma at Melbourne Writers Festival. I hope it makes the shortlist!

    I have Year of Rest in my TBR stack and was very much looking forward to it until my most trusted reading friend (we ALWAYS like the same books!) read it and hated it 😦 It moved down a couple of spots in the reading pile then…

    Anyway, looking forward to the shortlist!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I liked The Trauma Cleaner even more than I expected to. It really covers a lot of bases in terms of health, too.

      It’s hard to say whether you’d appreciate the sense of humour in the Moshfegh — you could always sample the first few pages to see what you think.

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  3. The Trauma Cleaner sounds fascinating but also Too Much for me. The author sounds a bit like our friend Paul Theroux going and digging around in people’s lives and being entirely partisan about them but also writing beautifully. Interesting and different books, at least!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Argh, who was it agreed with me about his America book, then? Anyway, yes, that’s what he does and he makes explicit that you never really see the subject except through his eyes and filters.

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  4. I really liked My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and enjoyed it more than Eileen. I read it as darkly comic and very New York – all the characters so wrapped up in themselves. The dodgy psychiatrist was hilarious. Not sure though why it is on the Wellcome list – like AstroTurf, only link is that the main character seeks to improve their life pharmaceutically. They must want the list to be more trendy??

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Same here — I liked it so much better than Eileen. You’re right, the medical link there and with Astroturf is pretty tenuous, of relying on drugs. It is nice to have the fiction for some variety, and not just lots of 500-page books of science or medical history, though.

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  5. I felt the same way about Moshfegh’s book – I remember thinking that it really should be boring by now, because she’s just waking and sleeping, over and over. But I also found that aspect interesting to read – Moshfegh adds just enough variation in the routine to keep your attention. And I was so curious about the ending! I still think it’s kind of a weird choice for this prize…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yours is about the only review I remember seeing before the longlist came out. I guess none of my other blogger friends thought it would be to their taste! I thought the ending was terrific. I’ve sort of hinted at it, but couldn’t say much more without spoilers…

      Liked by 1 person

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